By P.J. DICKERSCHEID and VICKI SMITH
Associated Press Writers
KEYSER, W.Va. (AP) — More than two years since leaving her prison cell, the woman who became the grinning face of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal spends most of her days confined to the four walls of her home.
Former Army reservist Lynndie England hasn’t landed a job in numerous tries: When one restaurant manager considered hiring her, other employees threatened to quit.
She doesn’t like to travel: Strangers point and whisper, "That’s her!"
In fact, she doesn’t leave the house much at all, limiting her outings mostly to grocery runs.
"I don’t have a social life," she says. " … I sit at home all day."
She’s tried dyeing her dark brown hair, wearing sunglasses and ball caps. She even thought about changing her name. But "it’s my face that’s always recognized," she says, "and I can’t really change that."
England hopes a biography released this month and a book tour starting in July will help rehabilitate an image indelibly associated with the plight of the mistreated prisoners.
It’s difficult to forget the pictures that shocked millions in 2004: In one, she holds a restraint around a man’s neck; in another, she’s giving a thumbs-up and pointing at the genitals of naked, hooded men, a cigarette dangling from her mouth.
"They think that I was like this evil torturer. … I wasn’t," she says. "People don’t realize I was just in a photo for a split second in time."
In an interview with The Associated Press to promote her biography, "Tortured: Lynndie England, Abu Ghraib and the Photographs that Shocked the World," the 26-year-old England said she’s paid her dues and repeatedly apologized.
While admitting she made some bad decisions, England says it wasn’t her place to question the "softening-up" treatments sanctioned long before she arrived.
"We were just pawns," said England, who’s appealing her conviction and has her next hearing in July. "People were just playing us."
A jury of five Army officers, however, rejected England’s claims that she was only following orders and trying to please the father of her child, former Cpl. Charles Graner Jr., who’s currently imprisoned for his role.
Christopher Graveline, the lead prosecutor at her trial and now an assistant federal prosecutor in Michigan, said England and the other defendants are free to present their side to the media.
"But they presented the same facts to the jury, and the jury rejected them," he said.
England was convicted of conspiracy, mistreating detainees and committing an indecent act, one of 11 soldiers found guilty of wrongdoing at Abu Ghraib.
Since April, when newly released memos revealed the Bush administration had sanctioned certain so-called "enhanced interrogation" tactics, some have called for pardons of soldiers like England – or at least acknowledgment that they were scapegoats for higher-ups.
Graveline rejects such calls. He and investigator Michael Clemens have their own book coming out in January, "The Secrets of Abu Ghraib Revealed: American Soldiers on Trial," which they say aims to correct misunderstanding and misinformation.
The detainees in the photos involving England, for example, were not suspected terrorists, Graveline says, but some of the thousands of "Iraqi-on-Iraqi criminals" at the massive prison. None of the men in the England photos was ever interrogated.
"The idea that she and her colleagues were working somehow for military intelligence is not supported by fact," he says.
After serving half of a three-year sentence, England returned to the cocoon of a few friends and family in Fort Ashby, a quiet town of about 1,300 in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, 150 miles west of Washington, D.C.
Biographer Gary Winkler, a local author who spent countless hours with England and her family, says England’s family has closed ranks, hoping to protect her – and themselves. He said he has mixed feelings about her.
"Some days I liked her. Some days I hated her," he says. "Some days I thought she should be in prison still, and some days I felt sorry for her."
England, who’s put on a little weight and let her hair grow since mugging for the camera, says she struggles with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. Antidepressants help, and she has learned to deal with personal insults much as she dealt with the horrors of war: She just got used to it.
England says the most painful jab came in a note from a stranger who suggested her mother "shoot herself for raising somebody like me, and that I should kill my baby and kill myself, or give up my child for adoption, because the way I was raised they didn’t want him to turn into some evil monster, too.
"… and then at the end of it they were like, ‘Oh, God bless you,’" she adds with a wry laugh.
As a teenager, England hunted squirrels and fantasized about becoming a storm chaser. As a woman, she has more worries than dreams.
She worries about whether she’s a good mother to her 4-year-old son Carter.
"Normal moms have jobs. They get up, they take their kids to school, they go to work, they come home, they cook, they clean, they do all that," she says. "I’m home all day."
She says she submitted hundreds of resumes for all kinds of jobs, but no one would give her a chance. She stopped trying months ago and depends on welfare and her parents to get by.
She also fears for her life, though she’s 4,000 miles from Iraq: "I’m paranoid about that one guy who still hates me."
Even if she could go back and change something, England says she wouldn’t. If she hadn’t met Graner, she says, she wouldn’t have her son, the one bright spot from an otherwise dark time.
"I couldn’t have Carter exactly as he is without anybody else except Graner," she says, "so to me that’s the whole reason for me meeting him."
What she wants most now is what most mothers want, to give her child a good life.
And as for herself? "I don’t think beyond day to day."
On the Net:
England’s book: http://www.badapplebooks.com